Banchyi’s voice broke as she recounted what is known of the death of Lembibo, a domestic worker from Ethiopia who was discovered drowned inthe swimming pool of her recruiting agent in August.
Banchyi herself emigrated from Ethiopia seven years ago, lured by what she now describes as false promises. She addressed an audience of over 200 activists, members of the Ethiopian, Sri Lankan and Filipino workers communities, as well as Lebanese people, at a recent memorial service for Lembibo at the Resurrection Church in Hazmieh.
Banchyi urged the Lebanese people to help abolish the kafala employee sponsorship system, which she compared to “modern-day slavery.”
Under the kafala system, which is widely implemented across the Arab world, unskilled migrant workers are sponsored by an employee who is charged with their visa status.
Human rights groups have long criticized the system for leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation.
Banchyi said she was happy to see the number of Lebanese people who came to the event, saying it was their responsibility to reform the country’s labor laws. “We are losing the lives of the young generation every day. We are human beings who are here to work like any Lebanese people who travel all over the world to seek better lives. We deserve respect and we need justice. Unless the [kafala] system is removed, nothing can be done,” she said.
“Agencies [bringing Ethiopians to Lebanon] have all the power,” she told The Daily Star.
Even after finding employment for Lembibo at the house of an octogenarian couple in Nabatieh, her agent, identified as Ali Hoteit, showed up at her workplace to physically abuse her, Al-Jadeed TV reported in August.
Lembibo arrived in Lebanon in December 2017, aged 26, according to Al-Akhbar newspaper. Falling pregnant several months later, she lost her child in August following health complications, the newspaper reported. It added that her former employers then decided to return Lembibo reportedly in a dire physical and psychological state to Hoteit, who claimed to have found her body the following morning.
The cameras in his home had been turned off during Lembibo’s stay, according to Al-Jadeed.
The activists present at the church Sunday reiterated calls to further investigate the woman’s death and urged the authorities to conduct a DNA test to determine the biological father of Lembibo’s unborn child and the possibility of rape.
Ramy Shukr, the Anti-Racism Movement’s program officer, characterized the problem as “institutional.”
“[Despite] legal proposals over the past years, there has been no serious change when it comes to the kafala system, implemented or proposed by the Labor Ministry to the Parliament,” he said.
“We really hope that these deaths do not keep on increasing, but unless real change happens on legal and social levels, unfortunately we’ll have to keep organizing more [memorials] like this one.”
The remembrance event in Lembibo’s honor, organized by the Migrant Community Center, featured readings of select passages from the Bible, prayers in Amharic, Arabic and English, and speeches by the church’s senior pastor Hikmat Kashouh and Rev. Nabil Shehadi, both of whom apologized to foreign workers on behalf of all Lebanese people.
Ethiopian community representatives called on Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, to visit Lebanon, meet with representatives from the Ethiopian community, negotiate with the Lebanese government on legal protections for Ethiopian nationals working in the country, and for a crackdown on abuses by Lebanese agencies that recruit Ethiopian workers.
Foreign laborers in Lebanon suffer a lack of legal protection and frequent abuse by employers, resulting in the death of two domestic workers per week, according to the information obtained by the IRIN news agency from General Security in 2017.
A volunteer church worker who wished to remain anonymous showed The Daily Star a map of over 2,000 locations she had visited and where she claims at least one domestic worker is shut-in and deprived of days off and freedom of movement. “Nearly every apartment building in Beirut is like a prison,” she said. “There needs to be a law to cover domestic workers if they need to change their employer in case of abuse, as at the moment they are specifically excluded by all labor legislation.”
She also noted that the system in its current state disadvantaged both workers and their employers, who had to pay “hugely inflated agent’s fees” in what she described as “a completely unregulated industry.”
Rev. Shehadi expressed hope that momentum was gathering in Lebanon to improve migrants’ living conditions and that “the churches [would be] very much part of this,” embodying the values of the “kingdom of God, justice, love and mercy.”
He told The Daily Star he believed the clerical community belonged “at the forefront of the issues of justice and social transformation,” but also called for mobilizing civil society and politicians to address the mistreatment and precariousness of foreign workers.
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